Over the next few weeks, TechCrunch’s robotics newsletter Actuator will be running Q&As with some of the leading minds in robotics. Subscribe here for future updates.
Part 1: Matthew Johnson-Roberson of CMU
This week, we have two fer. Russ Tedrake and Max Bajracharya of the Toyota Research Institute shared the work. Tedrake is TRI’s vice president of Robotics Research. He is also the Toyota Professor at MIT in the Departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering and Aero/Astro. Bajracharya is TRI’s senior vice president of Robotics. He previously served as director of Robotics at the Institute.
What role(s) will generative AI play in future robotics?
Russ Tedrake: Generative AI has the potential to bring revolutionary new capabilities to robotics. Not only can we communicate with robots in natural language, but connecting internet-scale language and image data gives robots stronger understanding and reasoning about the world. But we are still in the early days; more work is needed to understand how to ground image and language knowledge with the kinds of physical intelligence needed to make robots useful.
What are your thoughts on the humanoid form factor?
Max Bajracharya: The areas where robots can assist humans are likely to be designed for humans, so these robots will likely need to fit and work in those environments. However, that doesn’t mean they need a humanoid (two arms, five fingered hand, two feet and a head) form factor; simply, they must be compact, safe and capable of human-like tasks.
After manufacturing and warehouses, what is the next major category for robotics?
Max Bajracharya: I see a lot of potential and demand in agriculture, but the external and unstructured nature of many tasks is very difficult. Toyota Ventures has invested in a couple of companies such as Burro and Agtonomy, which are making good progress in bringing autonomy to some of the initial agricultural applications.
How far are truly general purpose robots?
Russ Tedrake: I am optimistic that the field will be able to make steady progress from the relatively niche robots we have today toward more multi-purpose robots. It’s not clear how long, but flexible automation, high-mix manufacturing, agricultural robots, point-of-service robots and likely new industries we haven’t even imagined will benefit from increased levels of autonomy and more general capabilities. .
Will home robots (beyond vacuums) take off in the next decade?
Max Bajracharya: Homes remain a difficult challenge for robots because they are diverse and unstructured, and consumers are price sensitive. It is difficult to predict the future, but the field of robotics is developing very rapidly.
What important story/trend in robotics is not getting enough coverage?
Russ Tedrake: We’ve been hearing a lot these days about generative AI and about incredible hardware development and investment. Many of these breakthroughs, however, have been made possible by the quiet revolution we’ve seen in simulation. Just a few years ago, most roboticists would have said it was impossible to train or test a computer vision system in simulation; now it’s standard practice. Some researchers still doubt that we can create a control system for, say, a skilled hand completely in simulation and it will work in reality, but the trend is growing in this way. Big investments from companies like Nvidia, Google DeepMind and TRI have helped make it happen.